The Daleks, a Cambridge creationMagnus D. via Wikicommons

As a humanities student with a significant chip on my shoulder, I’ve had to suffer through countless conversations in which Cambridge is hailed as the ‘sciency one’ in the Oxbridge partnership. I love Rosalind Franklin, Watson and Crick, and Alan Turing as much as the next guy, but where Cambridge is central in the history of modern science, it should also be centred in histories of British film and TV. We are all familiar with the long list of Footlights alumni who have gone on to star on the BBC comedy circuit and chances are, if you’re watching a British period drama, there will be a Cantab among the cast. However, there’s also a much bigger picture of Cambridge’s involvement in the film and TV scene, and this town is a useful lens to look at some of the biggest cultural turns in British showbusiness over the last 60 years. Let’s go on an eras tour of Cambridge’s contributions to film and TV.

The Satire Boom and the Permissive 60s

From Spitting Image, an echo of the 60s satire boomMatt Buck via WikiCommons

While film and TV didn’t start in 1960, the spirit of the sixties was certainly bolstered by the rise of controversial new media productions. Declining deference has been cast as a characterising feature of the decade, and no TV show reflects this better than That Was the Week that Was. First airing in 1962, the tongue-twistingly titled TV show led the way when it came to ridiculing British political figures and challenging stiff-upper-lip stereotypes; in the era of the Profumo affair and relaxed censorship laws, it really caused a stir. They famously went after Harold Macmillan and featured skits such as the ‘illegitimate baby song’. Presenter David Frost, satirist John Bird and cartoonist Timothy Birdsall are just a few of the production members who hailed from Cambridge.

“The lack of women and people of colour here is frustrating but not surprising”

Alongside the satire boom, the rise of kitchen sink realism and the adaptation of works by ‘angry young men’ in British literature shaped the cinema of this period. This genre was represented by realist portrayals of ‘ordinary’ life. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) followed Arthur, a Nottingham teddy boy; he hates his monotonous job, resents his parents and spends all his free time partying and drinking. The film centred on his relationship with two women, one of whom is a married woman. Director Karel Reisz read Natural Sciences at Emmanuel but was writing for Sight and Sound in his spare time. His work on this film places him at the centre of a cultural shift in British cinema, where grittier films and complex working class characters were being centred for the first time.

The Sci-Fi of the 1970s

A generation of Cambridge writers and directors shaped Doctor WhoFrançois Léger via Wikicommons

Doctor Who first appeared on television screens in 1963 and a generation of Cambridge writers and directors shaped its evolution in the 1970s. Christopher Barry attended Cambridge before cutting his cinematic teeth at Ealing Studios, working as an assistant director alongside Basil Dearden; despite this, it was his 1970s work on Doctor Who which made his career. Barry was the longest running director of the show, starting in 1963 and staying until 1979 as he oversaw the Doctor’s first run-in with the Daleks. Barry is accompanied by Rodney Bennett, a John’s alumnus who directed three episodes in the 1970s; The Sontaran Experiment (1975), The Ark in Space (1975) and The Mask of Mandragora (1976).

New Horizons and Homosexuality in the 1980s

Frears at Cardiff film festivalAnne Siegel via Wikicommons

Where the 60s shocked with permissiveness, 1980s film and television is where we start to see these boundaries pushed further. Sex and sexuality had become more visible on screen in the 1970s, but they became even more established in the 1980s. The directorial work of Stephen Frears is a powerful testament to this. The Trinity law grad directed the 1985 film My Beautiful Laundrette, which saw Omar, a young Pakistani man falling in love with his punk friend Johnny. It’s a 1980s gay rom-com with a happy ending – making it revolutionary by today’s standards.

“It’s a 1980s gay rom-com with a happy ending – making it revolutionary by today’s standards”

Frears went on to direct Prick Up Your Ears in 1987, a far more tragic but still overt portrayal of homosexuality on screen. The rise of gay cinema in the 1980s cannot omit mention of Maurice (1987), which had a screenplay written by Clare alumnus Kit Hesketh-Harvey. In a period often defined by the trauma of the AIDS crisis, this cinema made important progress in destigmatizing the visibility of queer people on screen.

The 1990s and 2000s – Sitcom Central

‘Simon Bird and Joe Thomas of Inbetweeners fame were at Cambridge in the noughties’David Everett via Wikicommons

Many of the classic sitcoms that we have grown up watching are the products of writers and comedians who started out in the Cambridge theatre circuit. Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin would go on to create the beloved Outnumbered, but first they attended Downing and Trinity respectively. Taskmaster creator Alex Horne was a Sidney Sussex grad and while they weren’t writers on the show, I always love reminding people that Simon Bird and Joe Thomas of Inbetweeners fame were at Cambridge in the noughties.


Mountain View

Inside World Cinema Society

I don’t want to simply blow Cambridge’s own horn – the fact so many of these figures have dominated Film and Television history is a testament to privilege as much as it is to talent. The lack of women and people of colour here is frustrating but not surprising. But, regardless, with the talent of the current Cambridge theatre scene, I have hope for the future that we can continue to contribute to the cultural zeitgeist of film and TV in a more diverse way.